Testing out the Flesh Machine

Current reading: Race to the Finish: Identity and Governance in an Age of Genomics by Jenny Reardon.

Pardon my absence from posting in the past couple weeks – classes have been crazy and I’m currently working on a conference paper for the “Visualizing Disability” Panel at the Southeastern College Art Conference at SCAD in November (more posts to follow soon about the conference) that has been taking up major time. So, this post may be a bit all over the place.

Reardon’s book discusses the history of one particular project, the Human Genome Diversity Project, as a way to illuminate the debates that occurred, and still are occurring, about the use of genetics research in studying humans, human populations, and races. She lays out the issues of how race has been studied scientifically and how it relates, or doesn’t, to social discourses and constructions of race. She asks us to consider how race is defined in society and in genetics, and which differences become the ones with meaning in each discourse.

We also watched a video featuring James Watson, one of the discoverers of DNA’s double helix, called “Pandora’s Box” in the series on DNA by PBS. In the video Watson describes his interests in studying genetics and a “new eugenics.” He claims that “If we don’t play God, who will?” The stakes for Watson are high. Statements of his about the intelligence of African Americans caused major controversy; not to mention the oft-forgotten fact that his son has a mental illness. An article in The Independent from 2007, “Fury at DNA Pioneer’s Theory: Africans Are Less Intelligent Than Westerners” describes Watson’s theory and the ensuing response to it. It quotes from Watson’s new book Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science:

There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.

This is where Reardon’s book becomes necessary in order to contextualize Watson’s work in the history of genetic research. It is easy to dismiss Watson here; his comments are brash, but we need to know where they come from. However, are we supposed to entirely dismiss genetics as well? How can we position Watson in the landscape of genetics and scientific research; in Isabelle Stengers’ notion of an “ecology of practices”? Reardon also claims that we can’t necessarily sanctify or condemn science; so what are we to think of this research? (Reardon 7) Many geneticists, on the other hand, who proposed and worked on the Human Genome Diversity Project were considered anti-racist, though they too were criticized for propagating further racism. The use of race in science and genetics has been fraught and tricky for us to get “past.” Luca Cavalli-Sforza, a leading scientist in the Project, was an anti-racist, and so therefore argued that studying human “populations” instead of human “races” would work to undermine racism in society. He, however, believed that race still did exist on the genetic level and there were certain differences between groups – this he was criticized for. How is our genetic make-up, our material, responsible for our social position, our race, and all other factors that make us who we are? Does our internal code really determine all aspects of how we will be?

Genetic testing is a contentious issue for disability proponents. Questions about who has the right to live become apparent here: if a fetus is found to have genetic disorders, should it be terminated? What are the qualifications for human-ness? What do we consider a “good” human? Though Reardon’s book mainly addresses the issue of race in genetics research, these other questions are there all the same. Questions about expertise and who has the authority/right to constitute the human emerge. Reardon brings Michel Foucault’s writing on “power-knowledge” to the issue, which can be important for thinking about new eugenics and reproductive technologies. Reardon asks: What kind of human diversities matter? And to this I ask, who decides what matters and how? What is the particular criteria to arrive at a judgment?

Critical Art Ensemble, Cult of the New Eve, image found at http://www.artnet.com

Art collective Critical Art Ensemble explores many of these questions in projects of theirs including Flesh Machine (1997-8), Intelligent Sperm Online (1999), The Society for Reproductive Anachronisms (1999-2000), and Cult of the New Eve (1999-2000). These projects all point to the utopian attitude conferred on new biotechnologies, and ask how to respond to this attitude and technologies at our disposal. The language of these projects mimics the language used by geneticists, eugenics and new eugenics practitioners, and arguably public health scholars as well. In the statement for Cult of the New Eve, CAE writes:

We are entering an age in which the secrets of creation are not in the hands of God, nor are they at the blind mercy of Nature. We control our own destinies… Once and for all, we shall know that humankind is not spiritual – it is material.

What separates this language from Watson’s claims that we need to take responsibility into our own hands for human progress, is that CAE is using the configuration of a cult to expose the underlying utopian project of eugenics and new eugenics. CAE is calling for us to be critically aware of these projects. In their position paper for the project, they talk about science’s position as new religion and that “its power lies only in the particulars of knowledge production.” However, as we have learned through Foucault, this knowledge production can’t be divorced from the production of power. How is the relationship between science and religion similar to the way the relationship between genetics and anthropology played out in the Human Genome Diversity Project – with genetics as hierarchically higher than anthropology? Who is really working for the “public good” and what does that really mean? What are the differences between us that actually matter?

Critical Art Ensemble, Flesh Machine – image found at http://greenmuseum.org

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